National Edition

Why 'The Giver' is more relevant than ever

Published: Monday, Aug. 25 2014 4:05 p.m. MDT

David Bloomer, The Weinstein Company

Before Katniss Everdeen ever volunteered for the Hunger Games or Beatrice Prior was ever labeled "divergent," there was Jonas.

As the 11-year-old hero of Lois Lowry's epic young adult dystopian novel "The Giver," Jonas set on a path to become his society's next Receiver: The person designated to carry on memories of the way his community once was before the government enacted "Sameness," taking everything from color to emotion out of the equation for the population. There's just one problem: Receiving the memories makes Jonas question "Sameness" and escape the only life he's known.

Since its release in 1993, "The Giver" has sold more than 10 million copies and has become a standby in many American classrooms. Yet the film, which opened nationwide Aug. 15, didn't enjoy monumental success its first weekend — netting an estimated $12 million and $15 million worldwide.

Slate's L.V. Anderson theorized that the film so far hasn't been as successful as hoped because filmmakers changed too much in the adaptation, which "warp(ed) its source material to resemble every other teen-marketed dystopia."

That's a shame, said Louisiana State University professor Steven Bickmore, since "The Giver" is a definite precursor to the current crop of apocalyptic heroes found in books like "The Hunger Games." But the book version of "The Giver," Bickmore said, will likely continue to be relevant in ways newer dystopian fables won't.

"'The Giver' is a seed text in terms of dystopian young adult literature. I think it's a better novel than both ('The Hunger Games' and 'Divergent')," Bickmore said. "Both ('Hunger Games' and 'Divergent') depend only on plot and a strong main character. I'd hate to say 'The Giver' is fabulous because it's character-drawn; I just think that character is expertly drawn. Jonas is subtle. He doesn't rally people to battle to make a point."

Parable for faith

Aside from the subtlety Bickmore cites, Jonas is also set apart as a major young adult hero because of the religious aspects of "The Giver" that are arguably absent from newer books.

As Slate's Eliza Berman pointed out when she reread the book, Jonas was in many ways a recasting of Jesus.

"I spotted the biblical names — there’s a Gabriel as well as a Jonas — and also the strong resemblance between Jesus and Jonas, who also takes on the pain of the world so that the rest of the community won’t have to," Berman wrote.

Katniss may have sparked a freedom fight in "The Hunger Games," but few parallels are drawn between her and any iconic biblical figures. So why don't more young adult fiction books tackle faith themes?

David Mahan, a professor of religion in literature at Yale University, said that in some ways it could be chalked up to the business of selling books and the prejudice some writers bring to their stories.

"'The Giver' is dealing with questions that get to the heart of the things we most deeply want to know," Mahan said. "In a market-driven (novel), the meaning of life isn’t going to be addressed. I think it's because the notion of virtue is largely unexplored."

Think about Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings" books vs. the movies, Mahan argued.

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